A Beginner’s Guide to Emptiness?

Despite ground so delicately paved with the best intentions, there is no such thing as emptiness for Westerners or emptiness for beginners in the proverbial sense of a somehow “boiled-down” and made-easy Wisdom for Dummies version.[1] For those of us addicted to consuming pre-packaged knowledge in a single grab of web data, this might come as a rude  shock. But we have merely collided with reality. His Holiness the Dalai Lama frequently alerts us to the fact that “understanding emptiness is not easy”:

Years are devoted to its study in Tibetan monastic universities. Monks memorize relevant sutras and commentaries by renowned Indian and Tibetan masters. They study with learned scholars and spend many hours a day debating the topic. To develop our understanding of emptiness, we must study and contemplate this subject as well. It is important to do so under the guidance of a qualified teacher, one whose understanding of emptiness is without flaw.[2]


If the profound nature of things could be taught in a somehow simpler manner and with less elaboration, then surely those great beings like Śākyamuni Buddha, who have realized the correct view of reality and perfectly actualized the path, and who have flawless means of guidance, would have immediately done so. This is because their purpose, moved by great compassion, is none other than to urgently help “the numberless sentient beings” to “realize the wisdom ending the limitless oceans of saṃsāric suffering,” as Lama Zopa Rinpoche poignantly puts it. Just as importantly, demand for a somehow quick path for generation of profound wisdom ignores how essential prerequisites, such as morality, concentration and wisdom (the three higher trainings), are themselves “accomplished on the basis of taking vows not to harm other sentient beings. ” His Holiness the Dalai Lama similarly  explains,

It is impossible to explain the import of the realization of emptiness in the context of just hearing or reading an explanation. It is something that has to be worked at over a long period of time together with the practices of morality—refraining from harm and extending compassion—and through making supplications to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other teachers for help in overcoming obstacles. We need many positive causes.[3]

Given this need for extensive skillful means and accumulated good qualities, even as preliminary for initial approach to the subject of profound truth, a substantial presentation on emptiness inevitably works in the manner of a vortex, dragging in topic after topic, each informing and supporting the other. So, if this is an unashamedly challenging blog, it is deliberately so because there is no topic more crucial to comprehend, more vast in its implications, than emptiness. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche describes:

By meditating on the ultimate nature of the I, the mind and so forth, you are able to realize this ultimate nature, which is emptiness only. Realizing their emptiness is the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature of the I and the mind. With it we are able to eliminate this ignorance—the hallucinatory mind that is the basis of all other disturbing thoughts. Not just the three poisonous minds (ignorance, anger and attachment) are included here. It takes in all other forms of mental disturbances that branch out from them. By eliminating the cause, ignorance, together with the other disturbing thoughts, we do not produce negative karma, and so there is no suffering and no way to experience the result of suffering: the cycle of death and rebirth, true sufferings and so forth. Because the I and the mind are dependent arisings there is the possibility of achieving liberation, which is the cessation of all suffering and its causes. By developing this wisdom and practicing it together with great compassion, loving kindness and the bodhicitta derived from these, we are able to cease all the mental stains, including the subtle ones. We complete all the realizations, which is full enlightenment. Such possibilities arise because the I, the creator of one’s own happiness and problems, the aggregates, the mind and so forth are themselves dependent arisings. Everything is a dependent arising and every dependent arising is empty. This is the reality. Due to being like this, the whole thing works. One can achieve the path and its goal.

[1] No slight is intended toward such bravely-named endeavors.

[2] The Dalai Lama, An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. Edited by Nicholas Vreeland (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), 156.

[3] Dalai Lama, How to Practice (New York: Pocket Books, 2002), 168–69.


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